IN 1982, Stephen J. Cannell unveiled The A-Team, a weekly, hour-long series about a crack commando unit sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum-security stockade into the Los Angeles underground. Still wanted by the government, they survived as soldiers of fortune.
If you had a problem – we were told – and no one else could help, and if you could find them, maybe you could hire – dramatic pause – the A-Team.
The show ran for five seasons, though only the first three were really any good, before ultimately succumbing to the limits of its own highly formulaic character.
Twenty-five years later, the team is back, thanks to writer/director Joe Carnahan. Hannibal Smith (Liam Neeson), Templeton “Faceman” Peck (Bradley Cooper), B.A. Baracus (Quinton “Rampage” Jackson), and H.M. Murdock (Sharlto Copley) have reunited, this time in the modern-day context of the Iraq war. After pulling off a practically impossible operation in which they reclaim a set of stolen printing-plates, the gang is promptly framed for the re-theft of those plates, as well as for the murder of beloved General Morrison, played by Gerald McRaney of another 1980s classic, Major Dad. They are tried and convicted, but soon bust out of prison again, driven by principle to set things right.
A chaotic storyline follows the characters around the globe, from Mexico to Iraq to Germany to Los Angeles, skirting a few other locales along the way. A duplicitous CIA agent (Patrick Wilson) and a rogue military contractor (Brian Bloom) take turns as lead villain, drawing the A-Team’s pursuit, while sexy Department of Defense investigator Charisa Sosa (Jessica Biel) chases after them. The action is laid on thick and plot holes are explained away through circular, quasi-explanatory, plot hole-filling dialogue.
For the critics, The A-Team offers a lot to criticize. Dave White is not wrong, for instance, when he titles his post, “The B-Minus Team.” Likewise, Jen Yamato is close to the mark when she calls the film “an explosion-y adventure made up of silly set pieces, a superficially complex plot, and plenty of clever one-liners.” My own impressions are summed up by Roger Ebert, who calls it an “incomprehensible mess with the 1980s TV show embedded inside.”
But for all its failings, The A-Team movie does remain loosely true to the show – giving old fans something to talk about, if not exactly adore. While no one can replace the originals, it’s clear that Neeson and company have done their homework. Cooper and Jackson get the mannerisms mostly right, and Copley plays Murdock about as well as Dwight Schultz himself. Watch closely and you might even see Shultz and Dirk Benedict pop in for cameo appearances.
The other interesting semi-carry-over is the treatment of action itself. While there is a ton of shooting in this movie, there is not a ton of killing, at least by contemporary action flick standards. On the TV show, machine guns were panned across crowds of bad guys without any tangible violence. Bullets struck windows, and car tires, and the dirt behind running feet, but almost never made contact with flesh or bone. When a makeshift grenade exploded immediately in front of a speeding vehicle, the car would flip and roll and land on its roof, but the camera would always cut back to verify that those inside had emerged unhurt.
“You okay?” the driver would ask.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” would be the extraneous response.
The A-Team’s tempered violence was only the most obvious element of a larger campiness that made it acceptable to an unusually wide audience. For those of us with media-conscious mothers, The A-Team joined MacGyver, Airwolf, Knight Rider, and a whole host of other situational action dramas in providing entertainment that we were actually allowed to watch. Gunfights occurred without blood, sex was occasionally implied but not depicted, and the language was unthinkably clean.
While bad guys do get killed in The A-Team movie – my purist brother pledged to walk out the second someone died, but didn’t – we do see evidence of restraint. Twice, Face calls a Mexican General a “Motherfff-,” only to have the important syllables drowned out by noise. And while his womanizing is more overt than we saw on the small screen, the camera never slows down enough to enter a bedroom. Thousands of gunshots correspond to only a dozen or so evident hits, and none of them are graphic.
It was around halfway through the movies, as the story was entering one of its most ridiculed subplots, that I thought Carnahan would finally embrace the franchise’s inner Ghandi. When B.A. emerges from prison, we learn that he has become a pacifist, refusing to take human life. Here we go, I reasoned, now the A-Team will join B.A. in pledging to shoot all over the place, but not kill. This was not to be. While toying with the idea for most of the fight sequences, Baracus ultimately comes around when Hannibal explains to him that Ghandi – yes, Ghandi – was okay with killing as well.
While I don’t believe this 80s genre is beyond adaptation, it does seem that its definitive qualities have gone out of style. Maybe the culture warriors are right, and American pop really is going to hell in a hand basket. Or, could it be that our appetite for unrealistic, stylized action has been unduly influenced by related desires for convoluted storylines and “realistic” CGI?
This movie could have given us a true A-Team narrative – a one-dimensional villain committing unforgivable crimes, Hannibal in disguise, Face freeing Murdock, B.A. afraid to fly, and notable early success followed by capture and imprisonment in a warehouse full of welding equipment and dynamite. But, it gave us much more, though leaving us with much less, and failing the Bechdel test in flagrant fashion along the way. But Carnahan’s plan does ultimately come together, and I’ll pay eight bucks to see the inevitable episode two.
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